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City still paying lip service to student housing crisis

Lifelong Allston resident Robert Dunne has seen two homes in his neighborhood recently sell for more than $1 million. “I’m guessing it’s all about money. They’re going to stuff kids in there to get their money back.’’Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File 2013

The university neighborhoods of America's college capital are quiet. Boston's annual rite of fall — the parade of the U-Hauls — is on the horizon.

I spotted some early birds in Brighton lugging mattresses into their rentals on Monday. Two undergrads struggled up rickety stairs, carrying a heavy dining-room table into a well-worn apartment in Allston.

But it remains tranquil enough along these shadow campus streets that — if you listen carefully — you can hear the sound of laughter. I'm not talking about giggling or a polite chortle.

I'm talking full-blown belly laughter. Think Robert DeNiro in "Cape Fear,'' puffing on a cigar and howling in the movie theater.


That sound? It's absentee landlords laughing at City Hall. And why shouldn't they?

A quick tutorial: Fifteen months ago, the Globe Spotlight Team established in painful detail that the city's college neighborhoods are riddled with dangerously overcrowded units as students are crammed into apartments owned by landlords making a bundle.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh expressed immediate concern. And then? Crickets.

The city identified nearly 600 units that appeared to violate a code barring more than four full-time undergraduates from living together. Sanctions issued for overcrowding? None.

In May, Walsh told me that within two weeks he was going to ask the City Council to put teeth into the ordinance to make it easier to punish landlords who exploit and endanger students. And then he didn't.

In July, Walsh said he was one week away from doing the same thing. And then he didn't.

Now, the mayor's office is insisting, he's really, really serious this time. Watch for some action next week, Walsh's office said.

"I'm simply perplexed,'' said Kevin Carragee, copresident of the Hobart Park Neighborhood Association who moved into his Brighton neighborhood in 1989. "Lives are at stake. The seriousness of the issue versus the lack of action that's taking place — it's a total disconnect. I don't understand it.''


Me neither.

My Globe colleagues and I spent months chronicling the problem, laying out clear violations for inspectors who have since done almost nothing. We've been in attic units that don't meet code. We've crawled through illegal basement units. I stood with one college kid in his third-story bedroom on Pratt Street when he wondered aloud: How would I get out of here in a fire? It's all chilling.

Why does this persist? Money.

Boston's universities are admitting more students than they can house. Landlords have smartly identified college rental homes as more valuable than Apple stock. And they have brazenly sized up the city's inability — or unwillingness — to enforce its own codes.

Ask Robert Dunne. He has lived on Pratt Street all his life and watched as his working-class neighbors in Allston — teachers, repairmen, union workers — were displaced as colleges expanded and once well-kept homes atrophied.

"I'm guessing it's all about money,'' said Dunne, noting that two nearby homes sold for more than $1 million recently. "They're going to stuff kids in there to get their money back.''

On Sept. 1, when the U-Hauls come lumbering down Commonwealth Avenue and fan out into Mission Hill and Brighton and Allston, the city will make its yearly show of force. Inspectors will be out. A city press release will trumpet the hundreds of code-violation tickets they've issues for dangling wires, rodent droppings, and absent smoke detectors.


Here's what they should also do: Stand at the foot of Gerald Road in Brighton or sit on Robert Dunne's porch in Allston and count the number of mattresses being carried in.

Last November, the city's new chief inspector, William "Buddy'' Christopher, told me the new measure to curb dangerously overcrowded student housing is "not a priority for me.''

Considering all the fruitless resolutions and empty promises that have followed, I have to give this to Christopher: At least his words had the virtue of truth. How funny is that?

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.